We can make the enterprise zone work

If you build it they will come...

That is the hope of the businesses and councils supporting a bid to create one of the government's flagship enterprise zones in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

This week saw supporters of the bid get together at one of the proposed sites in Lowestoft to make a public statement of intent about why it would be so good for businesses, not just in the two towns, but across the region.

The coalition government wants to create 21 enterprise zones as part of its bid to tilt UK plc away from the public sector and the City of London and towards the private sector and manufacturing.

The idea first emerged in George Osborne's Going for Growth budget in March, and the government approved the first wave of 10 zones – mostly in larger cities in the north.

But a coastal enterprise zone would be more than just a field of dreams –supporters hope it will be the spark to kickstart a boom in the region's energy industry which could deliver 2,000 jobs and attract 80 businesses by 2015 and a further 13,500 jobs over the five-year lifetime of the zone.

The bid itself has been put together by the Norfolk and Suffolk Energy Alliance, a coalition of four councils covering the area, the chambers of commerce and the East of England Energy Group (Eeegr) who believe it is the ideal way to tap into the predicted �50bn energy boom.

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And that is not all. The government has said that local enterprise partnerships such as New Anglia will be able to retain any increased business rate to support other economic development projects across the wider area which could generate an extra �200m in the next two decades.

Both Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft have had their slice of regeneration money in the past from government and the European Union.

The idea is not new – enterprise zones were at the forefront of Michael Heseltine's plans to breathe new life into the British economy back in the 1980s.

But the criticism back then was that rather than generating new growth, many firms just seized the tax breaks and moved from existing areas into the proposed zones.

Yet this enterprise zone approach is said to be different from both that of the Thatcher government and New Labour.

For starters, there is no up-front cash, just a series of incentives aimed at attracting new firms in.

With its mix of tax breaks, relaxed planning rules and promises of better broadband links the idea is that private firms will be tempted to set up, or even expand their existing operations.

And rather than being centred on one single site, the proposal is for the zone to include seven existing business park sites, two in Great Yarmouth and the rest in Lowestoft.

Andy Wood, chairman of New Anglia, admitted the approach differed from bids in other parts of the country, but the advantage was that the existing sites, which came ready made with road links and other infrastructure, could be quickly brought into use.

'That's a strength but we are mindful that this could be perceived as a weakness in Westminster,' Mr Wood said. 'But the bid supports the aims of the Local Enterprise Partnership (Lep) based around tourism and developing the energy industry, and offshore, and is in line with government policy.

'We mustn't get carried away because this is a bid process and with 29 other bids we have a one in three chance, but we think we have got a strong bid.

'There is enormous support for this. For years both Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft have been relying on grants. But an enterprise culture is developing and there is a real culture of enterprise that can only be built on.'

Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis said, if successful, the proposal would be as significant as dualling the final stretch of the A11 in terms of generating new growth.

'This is another part of the jigsaw,' he said. 'We can use the impetus to secure growth. We have got a huge opportunity through hi-tech industries. I think we will see growth right through Norfolk and East Anglia.'

Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, said: 'This is a well thought through proposal. Evidence from the private sector shows that granting the area Enterprise Zone status will make a clear difference. It will be the tipping point for inward investment.'

A succession of coalition ministers, and before that shadow ministers, have already made the trip to the area and heard the strength of the energy industry case.

But decentralisation minister Greg Clark will be the person who will make the final decision later this month. Yet even on a political level, with the Conservatives likely to be keen to keep their two MPs in the town, it is difficult to see what is not to like about the bid.

However, ultimately, the real test for the enterprise zone is whether it can deliver the jobs and growth both areas so desperately need.

Colin Law, leader of Waveney District Council, said he believed it was right for both areas.

'Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth working together create a credible international offer in offshore wind farm development and longer term operations and maintenance,' he said. 'This bid will benefit not just the defined enterprise zone areas in both towns through direct rate relief to new and expanding businesses but the whole of Norfolk and Suffolk through the related supply chains.

'The Lep partnership has put forward a strong sector specific bid to maximise opportunities for local job creation and new business development from major investment in offshore wind which our area needs to lead it through and out of recession.'